Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 2

We’re moving on with rewatching and rating the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on the next crop:

  1. Iron Man 3 – 5
  2. Thor: The Dark World – 4.5
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 8
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy – 3
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron – 5.5
  6. Ant-Man – 7

The average rating for this phase is 5.5, which is solidly mediocre, and that pretty much sums of the movies of this period: solid, but mediocre.

After an experimental start in phase 1, Marvel had clearly worked out its superhero movie formula by phase 2, which is both the strength and the weakness of these movies. The hero is an ordinary guy (still almost entirely guys) who gets or discovers some awesome power, struggles to balance his responsibilities as a hero with his own desire for a simpler, more comfortable life, and ends up fighting the equal and opposite guy (still entirely guys), who wants to use his power for wealth and/or self-aggrandizement. Marvel’s formula is by no means a bad one. It consistently delivers watchable summer popcorn flicks, but in phase 2 we begin to see the limits of the formula. Movies that stick to the formula chug around in the middle of the range, while those that stretch their bounds sometimes excel and sometimes flop.

Iron Man 3 rates a 5, the lowest of the Iron Man movies, largely because Tony Stark’s character just doesn’t have any room to grow. Number 3 provides some good action and Tony-tinkering, but its emotional rhythms just feel like a retread of 1 and 2.

Thor: The Dark World gets a 4.5, a slight step up from the first Thor, which isn’t saying much. Christopher Eccleston’s wooden performance as the villain Malekith, who gets almost no interaction with any other characters to enliven his scenes, doesn’t help the murky plot. The lack of chemistry between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster drags the movie down, although the perpetual spark between Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki brings it back up a bit.

The best movie of the phase is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, at 8. While we don’t like everything about this movie (I, for one, have never felt emotionally invested in the Steve-Bucky relationship), its pacing is crisp, the action is sharp-edged, and the emergence of the new Hydra represents a daring narrative choice for the MCU, which could have chosen to stay on safer ground.

The Winter Soldier is followed up by the worst movie of the lot, Guardians of the Galaxy, at 3. We know that our opinion of Guardians is not shared by many Marvel fans, but we find the movie tedious and most of its characters annoying. We’re not fond of stories in which a lone competent woman with a strong motivation has her narrative taken over by a self-centered man-child. We’re also not on board with a story whose emotional climax comes with that woman getting called a whore by another character out of the blue. Besides, all the crap we didn’t like when we were kids in the 80s is still crap we don’t like now.

Avengers: Age of Ultron muddles through with a 5.5. It is a movie filled with character moments that almost work, dialogue that almost means something, and narrative choices that almost make sense. A few excellent performances, like James Spader’s Ultron and Paul Bettany’s Vision help lift the rating, but they’re pulling against a lot of dead weight.

Ant-Man takes us out on a high note, at 7, with a zany tiny-sized heist that, like sucking on a good piece of candy, doesn’t really satisfy your hunger, but sure feels good while you’re doing it. The small scope of this movie (literally and narratively) is an asset, allowing the jokes to land and the characters to develop without too much worrying about the end of the world to get in the way.

Have a different favorite (or un-favorite)? Let us know!

Image: Screenshot from Captain America: The Winter Soldier via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Representation Chart: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Phase 1 movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man; The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man 2; Thor; Captain America: The First Avenger; Avengers).

Characters included

  • Iron Man: Tony Stark / Iron Man, Obedaiah Stane, Agent Coulson, Happy Hogan, Abu Bakaar, Pepper Potts, Christine Everhart, Colonel Rhodes, Nick Fury, Yinsen, Raza
  • The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner / Hulk, General Ross, Emil Blonsky, Leonard, Stanley, Samuel Sterns, Betty Ross, Major Sparr,
  • Iron Man 2 (new characters): Ivan Vanko, Senator Stern, Justin Hammer, Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
  • Thor (new characters): Thor, Loki, Odin, Erik Selvig, Volstag, Fandral, Agent Sitwell, Clint Barton / Haweye, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Sif, Frigga, Heimdall, Hogun
  • Captain America: The First Avenger: Steve Rogers / Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Colonel Philips, Johann Schmidt / Red Skull, Howard Stark, Dr. Erskine, Dr. Zola, Dum Dum Dugan, James Falsworth, Jacques Dernier, Gilmore Hodge, Senator Brandt, Peggy Carter, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita
  • Avengers (new characters): American World Security Councilor, Russian World Security Councilor, Agent Hill, British World Security Councilor, Chinese World Security Councilor

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity, including sexuality, language, disability, etc. that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We’ve taken a bit of a swerve in our rewatching and rating project. In between tv series, we’ve decided to take a run at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on Phase 1:

  1. Iron Man – 7
  2. The Incredible Hulk – 2
  3. Iron Man 2 – 6
  4. Thor – 4
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8
  6. The Avengers – 10

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall average is 6.2, which is perfectly respectable, but the range is all over the place, from pretty bad to meh to awesome.

You can tell that Marvel was still figuring out how to make not only a new kind of superhero movie but a new kind of movie franchise. The early installations are stand-alone, fairly slow-paced, and self-contained. We can still remember how exciting it felt to have a minor character like Agent Coulson pop up in multiple movies that weren’t sequels. Nowadays we don’t even get out of bed for a Marvel movie that doesn’t have at least three tie-in characters and a place in the ongoing arc of the Phase.

The Incredible Hulk, the largely forgotten Marvel movie, is on the bottom of the heap at 2. Formulaic and uninspired, the story drags itself from one obligatory action scene to another. Having seen Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, Edward Norton feels flat and unsympathetic. So much backstory is assumed that this movie feels like a sequel to something we’ve never seen (it takes care not to step on Ang Lee’s previous Hulk movie without actually picking up on its story in any meaningful way). Although there are some bright spots in this movie, like the visually thrilling foot chase through a Brazilian favela, you can see why we haven’t gotten another stand-alone Hulk movie.

We’re lucky that Marvel hedged its bets on launching the MCU with two movies instead of just one. Iron Man delivers much of what The Incredible Hulk lacks. While the story is still relatively straightforward and follows a predictable Hollywood three-act structure, it is more competently handled and more subtly embellished than Hulk. We get to see Tony Stark tinker and iterate not only on his suit designs but on his ethics and sense of self, which is makes his character much more interesting to watch than Banner, who has no real character development in his own movie. Robert Downey Jr. sells the character of Tony Stark as a flawed genius grappling with the consequences of his own choices.

Iron Man 2 carries on the good work of the original without adding much to it and begins the unfortunate trend of Marvel movies whose plot is driven by Tony Stark’s emotional issues. Thor has some beautiful art design and fun character moments, but mostly ends up feeling like the product of too many compromises.

Captain America: The First Avenger delivers a solid origin story not only for its eponymous hero but for the whole Marvel universe as well. With an alternate-version World War II dominated by Hydra’s experiments with cosmic technology and an American super soldier, the ground is prepared for a modern world of superpeople. Chris Evans’s performance takes a character who could be flat and sanctimonious and makes him charming.

But it is The Avengers, at a full 10, that crowns Phase 1. Joss Whedon’s last great work before his descent into self-satisfied mediocrity, The Avengers is a superhero movie that takes not only the idea of superheroes but the idea of a superhero movie seriously. The characters have both emotional depth and clear motivations. Their conflicts arise not from plot contrivance but from conflicting world-views and emotional needs. And they smash alien monsters together real good.

Got a different take on Marvel’s first hexalogy? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Still from The Avengers via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 9

We’re back at it again, rewatching and rating another season of new series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on season 9.

  1. “The Magician’s Apprentice” – 4
  2. “The Witch’s Familiar” – 3
  3. “Under the Lake” – 6.5
  4. “Before the Flood” – 6.5
  5. “The Girl Who Died” – 4
  6. “The Woman Who Lived” – 4.5
  7. “The Zygon Invasion” – 2
  8. “The Zygon Inversion” – 2
  9. “Sleep No More” – 1
  10. “Face the Raven” – 1.5
  11. “Heaven Sent” – 5
  12. “ Hell Bent” – 2

This season is a real come down, with an average rating of just 3.5, the lowest yet. There are some reasons why many of this season’s episodes don’t rate very well. The showrunners made the interesting choice of making almost every episode in the season a two-parter. (Only “Sleep No More” stands alone.) This has the potential of allowing for more expansive and complex storytelling, which pays off in “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood,” but in other cases, like “The Magician’s Apprentice” / “The Witch’s Familiar” and “The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion,” what we get is an episode-and-a-half worth of story with the Doctor filibustering to fill out the time.

The lowest-rated episode of the season is “Sleep No More,” which is trying to be a claustrophobic monsters-in-space horror story with a twist, but which can’t escape the absurdity of its premise. Doctor Who has managed to make a lot of mundane things scary, from children in gas masks to angel statues to repeated words, but this was a stretch too far. It doesn’t matter how much first-person shaky-cam footage you use or how much running through darkened hallways your characters do, there is just no way to make the crud that builds up at the corner of your eye when you sleep scary.

Special mention goes to the “Zygon Invasion / Inversion” two-parter, for being not only badly written and poorly paced but also having some troubling undertones. This pair of episodes picks up on the 50th anniversary special which ended with a colony of Zygons—shape-changing aliens that can mimic other life forms—settled on Earth in human form. Here, a splinter group of Zygons refuses to maintain the charade and begins waging a violent campaign against humans and conforming Zygons. The episode ends with the rebel Zygons agreeing to remain in human form. On one hand, the reversion to the status quo is necessary if the series is not prepared to deal with the ongoing consequences of a world full of humans finding themselves living next to starfish-like aliens. On the other hand, the implications of telling a group of immigrants that they can’t live openly and must hide their identity by conforming entirely to the culture of their new home is unsettling in these days of rising nativism and anti-immigrant hate. This is not the open-hearted, compassionate Doctor Who that we are used to.

The best episodes of the season are the two-parter “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” both at 6.5. In this episode, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in an underwater station where a crashed alien ship is killing the crew and turning their ghosts into transmitters. It’s an intriguing mystery that develops slowly as the Doctor pieces together the clues. This episode is reminiscent of the season 2 two-parter “The Impossible Planet” / “The Satan Pit,” with the Doctor facing off against an ancient evil that uses written language to infect the crew of the station.

This is as far as we’ve gotten in our Doctor Who rewatching project. We’ll update with season 10 when we get around to it, and we’re looking forward to the upcoming season 11 and checking out Jodie Whittaker’s take on the wandering Gallifreyan.

This just wasn’t the season for us. How did it work for you? Feel differently about the season as a whole or an episode in particular? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who season 9 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

 

Faves from a List of Upcoming Female-Lead Action Movies

Jordan Crucchiola at Vulture listed and tracked every upcoming female-lead Hollywood action movie. It’s divided into sections so that it’s easy to see what’s in development, in production, and postproduction (or coming soon).

IMDB Widows Photo

It’s an impressive list. (I wish its scope were wider, though—gimme other genre subtypes, too, and productions from around the world, please?)

Below are a few of the ones that most tickle my fancy, with first a short description by Crucchiola and then my impressions.

 

The Aeronauts (preproduction)

  • “Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star as a researcher and pilot team that goes on a science mission in a hot-air balloon. They ascend higher than anyone ever has, and have to fight for survival in the thinning atmosphere.”
  • Apparently set in the mid-1800s, this sounds like a non-mystery precursor to Murdoch Mysteries. I like Felicity Jones a lot, but am dubious of Amazon productions (mostly since I haven’t seen any so far, so take this with a bucket of salt).

A Black Widow stand-alone movie (screenwriter attached)

  • “It was announced earlier this year [2018] that Kevin Feige and Marvel had hired a writer for a Black Widow stand-alone screenplay.”
  • High time!

Captain Marvel (postproduction; U.S. release March 08, 2019)

  • “Marvel’s first female-lead superhero movie stars Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, an extremely powerful figure in the comics canon. We don’t know much—except that it’s set in the 1990s […].”
  • Again, high time! (According to Wikipedia, Captain Marvel has been in development since 2013.) I know extremely little of the character, but liked Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island and Community.

Cleopatra Jones (in development)

  • “Details about the new film are not yet known, but in the 1973 original, Cleopatra Jones was a James Bond-type who worked as a special agent for the U.S. government and dealt with drug-related crimes.”
  • A reboot, although nothing I’ve heard of before. Hm. Maybe?

Enola Holmes (just announced at the start of the year)

  • “[A]daptation of Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes Mysteries novel series. Enola is the baby sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, and wouldn’t you know it, a crack sleuth in her own right.”
  • Yes, please! Even more so, since Millie Bobby Brown (who outshone everyone else in Stranger Things) is set to star in and produce.

The Killer (in development)

  • “An assassin with a strict moral code can no longer abide the amoral ways of her employer, and so seeks to get out of the game.”
  • This might be amazing: John Woo is set to direct a reboot with Lupita Nyong’o in the head role.

Star Wars Episode IX (preproduction but definitely happening; U.S. release December 20, 2019)

  • “Star Wars remains an ensemble-powered saga, but this trilogy has always been about Rey’s journey.”
  • Yay! I’m just so sad we can’t have Carrie Fisher in it!

Widows (postproduction; U.S. release November 16, 2018)

  • “Brace yourself for this screen adaptation of a British mini-series from 1983, in which four widowed women plan to finish a heist job their dead husbands failed to complete.”
  • Ocean’s 8 was a great heist movie with a fantastic spread of women of all sorts (except the law-abiding type, heh heh) so this might be good, too.
  • Of the female cast, I recognize only Viola Davis (who’s awesome!); of the male, Collin Farrell (a meh performance in the 2012 Total Recall reboot and a suitably psycho Bullseye in the 2003 Daredevil), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi in Black Panther), and Liam Neeson (who’s a turnoff for me, but perhaps he’s only got a small supporting role).

Wonder Woman 2 (in development)

  • “The timeline will reportedly move into the ’80s for the Wonder sequel, with the Cold War and USSR factoring in. Jenkins has also teased another love story.”
  • Am I the only one who’s noticed an uptick in movies where Russia (in one of its embodiments) is a bad guy? But: puh-leeeease stop writing forced love interests in movies! Love is great, but we don’t have to have an example of romantic love in every. single. story. Some stories work better without it, or with other types of love than the romantic variety.

 

Image: photo from the movie Widows from Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation via IMBD

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Some Random Thoughts on Ant-Man and the Wasp

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Erik’s random thoughts:

  • This was an excellent follow-up to the original Ant-Man, making the story deeper and more complex while keeping the wild fun caper tone.
  • As others have noted, it really should have been called The Wasp and Ant-Man. It’s Hope’s movie. Scott is the sidekick this time around, and that’s great.
  • Although Hope’s Wasp suit is form-fitting, it doesn’t overtly sexualize her in the way a lot of other Marvel women’s costumes do. The same goes for Ghost’s suit. I hope this is a sign of things to come.
  • Luis on truth serum (“It’s not truth serum”) may be the funniest thing to come out of the MCU yet.
  • In a media landscape oversaturated with father-son stories, it was a very welcome change to have a movie about fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and found family, with nary a father-son story in sight.

 

Eppu’s random thoughts:

  • I found Ant-Man & the Wasp more enjoyable than Ant-Man (which I did like!) in many respects. The pacing felt more even, the villain slightly less corny, the cinematography as good or better, to mention a few.
  • AM&tW also felt more aware of itself in that it actively upended or joked about some conventions (e.g., some of the chase sequences, the long-running truth serum gag, even the name of Scott and Luis’ security company).
  • The antagonist setup was refreshingly different. Instead of one ham hock of a megalomaniac we’re treated to two forces grappling with Scott, Hope, and Hank: a woman trying to cope with years of pain and exploitation, plus a wannabe megalomaniac more in line with the usual cheesy MCU villain. Thankfully, the latter is used sparingly and isn’t allowed to lord it over everyone else.
  • The action sequences did so many funny and inventive things with size. I’ll also hazard a guess that the studio has improved their software since Ant-Man—at least to my untrained eye, the CGI looked smoother.
  • I loved how Cassie, Maggie, and Paxton’s family unit had—literally—embraced Scott. His cardboard fort / tunnel system treasure hunt with Cassie was so awesome! We tend not to see enough fathers enthusiastically play with their daughters on the big screen, let alone in superhero movies, so a big Thank You to the writing team for that.
  • I also loved the amount of screentime Hope got, and that there was no father-son story but a mother-daughter one and two father-daughter stories. You could even argue that Bill and Ava’s relationship amounted to an adoptive/adopted parent-child one (for the lack of a better term), or was moving in that direction by the end.
  • It was a funny flick, too. I sniggered all the way through.
  • Michael Peña’s Luis—oh, man! I don’t know how he can deliver the hyperspeed lines so fluently. He’s amazing! It was also nice to see how the ex-con gang worked together and that Dave and Kurt got a bit more development.
  • There’s one detail that stuck to my mind as a little too close to railroading: the countdown clock on Janet’s rescue window. Although, there’s plenty of Pym particle physics that’s merely handwaved aside, so it’s not like it’s alone in the MCU.
  • Finally, my two cents on the two stingers. The first one gave me the kind of genuine “Oh, shit” reaction that the end of Infinity War wasn’t able to. The second stinger felt cheaper, almost perfunctory.

Image: Ant-Man and the Wasp poster via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

I’m Still Angry about How I Met Your Mother

I realize I’m several years late to this particular party, but I have a huge problem with the originally aired final episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. It’s not just that I don’t like what the episode did to the main characters and their relationships; it’s that the final episode undid much of what I liked about the series as a whole.

How I Met Your Mother is the story of five friends and their adventures as the main character, Ted, tries to find Miss Right, as told in retrospect by an older Ted to his children. A lot of the charm of the series is the way it plays with the idea of story-telling and memory: episodes often tell events out of order or literalize old Ted’s slips of memory and half-truths (a person whose name Ted can’t remember is just called Blah-Blah, all flashbacks to college-age characters smoking pot have them eating sandwiches instead, etc.). But beyond this narrative playfulness, one of the things I appreciate most about the series is that it undercuts three of the big toxic tropes about relationships that pervade so much of popular culture. Unfortunately, all three of these tropes are snapped right back into place by the final episode.

At its best, How I Met Your Mother showed that:

1. Women do not exist to serve men’s emotional needs

Robin and Lily, the main female characters of the series, are not just emotional props for the men in their lives but are fully-rounded characters with lives, careers, ambitions, desires, and foibles of their own. The Mother, who finally turns up in the last season, is also a well-developed character with her own quirks, history, and emotional life. Although they all have relationships with men, none of them exists solely to serve the needs of a man’s emotional fulfillment.

In the final episode, however, Lily is largely absent, the Mother—having given Ted the children he wanted but that Robin couldn’t have—swiftly dies of a convenient cancer of the plot, and Ted is finally free to pursue Robin at last, who gamely falls into his arms. From three full and interesting characters, the women of the series are at the end reduced to a nonentity, a plot device, and a cereal-box prize.

2. Men and women can be friends

When Ted and Robin split up after a brief early relationship, they don’t just go their separate ways. After an understandable period of awkwardness and division, they remain part of the same group of friends and develop a comfortable, even intimate friendship. They rely on one another, confide in one another, and look out for each other’s well-being. This is what reasonable people do in the real world. The idea that any relationship between a man and a woman must necessarily lead to either romance or heartbreak has robbed the world of too many potential friendships. How I Met Your Mother showed up this lie for what it is.

Until the final episode, when we discover that Ted and Robin’s friendship was just a holding pattern until they were both ready to fall back into each other’s arms.

3. A relationship doesn’t have to be perfect to be good

In fiction, the conservation of narrative detail usually means that any conflict within a couple is a sign that the relationship is either broken and in need of transformative repair or else fatally flawed and doomed to end badly. How I Met Your Mother avoided this trope by showing us how Lily and Marshal have a good, strong, loving relationship despite their conflicts, upsets, and rough patches, just like most real-world couples. The last few seasons show us how Robin and Barney, despite their own individual problems, grow together into a couple that works.

Then the final episode comes around and the need to release Robin to be scooped up by Ted means that Robin and Barney’s marriage has to come apart at the seams. After several years of the characters figuring out how to make their relationship work, one on-screen argument is enough to break it all to pieces.

As I said, I know I’m far from the first person to gripe about the show’s final episode, but the reason it bothers me so much is because it directly undercuts so much of what was good about the series to begin with. Somehow, good things that end up going bad annoy me more than things that are just bad to begin with.

Images: Robin via Giphy; Robin and Barney via Giphy; Lily via Giphy

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Rating: Doctor Who, Season 8

We have carried on our rewatching and rating to season 8 of the modern Doctor Who. Here’s our take:

  1. “Deep Breath” – 5.5
  2. “Into the Dalek” – 5
  3. “Robot of Sherwood” – 2
  4. “Listen” – 1.5
  5. “Time Heist” – 5
  6. “The Caretaker” – 3
  7. “Kill the Moon” – 6
  8. “Mummy on the Orient Express” – 6.5
  9. “Flatline” – 5.5
  10. “In the Forest of the Night” – 5
  11. “Dark Water” – 1.5
  12. “Death in Heaven” – 1.5

The average rating this season comes out to exactly 4, which is weak but not terrible. This comes in as the second-lowest-rated season after season 5, at 3.7. This season’s episodes are all over the place, which for Doctor Who is not a bad thing. Not all of the episodes work, but we appreciate the willingness to try out strange ideas, unexpected settings, and dramatically different moods.

This season also introduces Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, and it’s a bit of a shaky start. Capaldi’s intensity is a nice change from Matt Smith’s quirky detachment, but too often it manifests as anger. As that anger often gets focused on Clara, we have the uncomfortable dynamic of a young woman saddled with the emotional labor of managing a cranky older man’s moods, and one begins to wonder if someone in the production team is having a bit of a temper tantrum about changing gender dynamics in the workplace. Still, straight out of the gate, Capaldi is more convincing as the Doctor than Smith ever was.

Three episodes are tied for our lowest rating of the season, at 1.5. The first is “Listen,” an ambitiously strange episode that tries to recapture the atmospheric spookiness of the classic “Blink,” but falls flat. The Doctor is looking for a creature so good at hiding that no one has ever seen it. This intriguing setup leads to a disjointed series of maybe / maybe-not monster hunts that for some reason revolve around Clara’s fellow teacher and potential boyfriend Danny Pink. Despite some well-written and tensely-directed individual scenes, the episode remains too unfocused and too committed to the is-it-or-isn’t-it schtick to develop any meaningful narrative drive or reach any satisfying conclusion. The pieces of the puzzle lie scattered on the floor, refusing to come together and make a picture.

The other two 1.5s are the obligatory concluding two-parter “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven,” in which the latest regeneration of the Doctor’s old nemesis, the Master—now female and going by Missy—reveals that she has been hijacking dead people to make liquid cybermen out of their bodies so that she can make the Doctor uncomfortable by… you know, nothing about the plot of these episodes makes any sense, or, really, matters. Michelle Gomez has a blast chewing the scenery as Missy (and provides a valuable canonical precedent for Time Folks gender-flipping during regeneration), but as usual in this series, the Master’s overly contrived plans just come off as a juvenile play for attention. As tends to happen on Doctor Who, putting the whole world in peril actually serves to lower the stakes, rather than raise them, and this season’s ender comes off as more petty than anything else.

At the other end of the scale, “Mummy on the Orient Express” is the best episode of the season, at 6.5. In this episode, a version of the Orient Express train flying through space is plagued by the appearance of a legendary monster only visible to its victims. On one hand, this episode would have benefited from some more development. Unlike on the replica Titanic of “The Voyage of the Damned,” we never get any kind of explanation as to why a space train in the future is a replica of the Orient Express with all the guests wearing period clothing. The guest cast, though excellent, is underused, and the ending leaves a huge plot thread conspicuously dangling. On the other hand, there are a lot of strong elements. The mystery is intriguing and its resolution neatly ties up the clues. The pacing runs along smoothly, and the device of an on-screen timer counting down the mummy’s attack is cleverly used to build tension. For mystery fans, there is also a subtle nod to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, as what seems like a train full of strangers turns out to have been assembled for a very particular purpose.

What’s your take on this season? Does Capaldi do it for you? Is “Listen” just your cup of tea? Not enthused by the mummy on the space train? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who season 8 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

In Defense of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy

There’s a lot wrong with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, make no mistake. It is an overstuffed, poorly structured jumble of unnecessary action sequences, juvenile humor, and tedious subplots, all ending in an interminable final battle that makes neither narrative nor tactical sense. Still, not all the problems are of Jackson’s making, and there are some things it does right that deserve notice.

Many of the structural weaknesses in the plot come from Tolkien’s original. The Hobbit was a children’s book about Bilbo Baggins and a band of Dwarves having a series of random encounters on their way to a spectacularly poorly planned heist. The characters are for the most part so flat as to be interchangeable and the plot is little more than an excuse to trundle from one retold Nordic folktale to another. I loved the book as a child and I still have a great fondness for it, but it does not have the depth or cohesion of The Lord of the Rings. Jackson’s writing team put in heroic efforts to make thirteen distinct characters out of Tolkien’s lyrical list of Dwarf names and to fill in much of the background story that makes sense of Bilbo’s disjointed adventures. (On the other hand, this fleshing-out work is also the source of many of the movies’ problems. On one hand, developing the Dwarves’ characters too often just provided more opportunities for out-of-place slapstick. On the other hand, filling in the gaps in Tolkien’s plot led to inventing new characters, which Jackson’s team too often fell in love with and allowed to take over the story.)

Despite these problems, some of the best moments in the trilogy are iconic scenes from Tolkien’s original that were put on screen with very few changes. Scenes like Bilbo’s riddling contest with Gollum in the depths of the Misty Mountains, Gandalf’s wily approach to Beorn, and Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug are rendered with a fidelity that shows a real love and respect for Tolkien’s creation. They are a delight to watch, even if they can’t make up for the rest of the films around them.

Even the less authentic scenes are often elevated by the quality of the performances. Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee reprise their roles as Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman with intelligence and gravitas. Andy Serkis gets to present a less desperate, more playful version of Gollum while Orlando Bloom performs a younger Legolas who is, as Tolkien said of the Mirkwood Elves, “more dangerous and less wise” than the character we remember from The Lord of the Rings. The newcomers to the series give it their best, too. Martin Freeman shows us how Bilbo finds his courage and taste for adventure without ever losing his Hobbitish love of home and comfort. The Dwarf actors, for all that they mostly get used for broad comedy, give their characters an individuality and personality that Tolkien never did. Benedict Cumberbatch is smoothly menacing as the voice of Smaug. Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast does a bit too much slapstick, but he also gives us a wild fresh take on wizardry that sits at the other end of the spectrum from Saruman’s aloof grandeur.

The sets, props, costuming, and other art direction live up to the high standards set by Weta in the first trilogy. From the ancient depths of Erebor to the workaday fishing village of Lake Town, from the rugged traveling gear of the Dwarves to the cold glamour of the Elvish king Thranduil, there isn’t a place, character, or object on screen that doesn’t show the art department’s commitment to creating a world that feels real and lived-in. Over it all, Howard Shore’s music is as rich and operatic as ever.

But the best thing about the Hobbit trilogy, though, the thing that redeems the whole troubled production and its many missteps, is not the films themselves but the discs full of extras that come with the extended editions. Most studios are content to slap in a few deleted scenes, a handful of trailers for unrelated movies, and maybe a couple five-minute promo interviews with the big-name stars talking about how awesome the movie is (seriously, movie studios, you don’t need to market your movie to the people who have already bought the DVD), but not Jackson & Co. Each of the Hobbit films comes with hours upon hours of in-depth documentaries on every aspect of the production, from concept art to final edits. These documentaries do more than go behind the scenes in the usual self-promoting Hollywood way. They also show us the false starts, the mistakes, the ideas that went nowhere and the things that went seriously wrong. You get a fuller appreciation of the good things in the movies when you see how hard it was to get some of them on screen.

The extra features are also well designed for usability. Everything is subtitled, which is great for those of us who don’t always hear well. The menus are easy to use and it’s obvious which item you’re choosing, unlike some discs which make you do a lot of tedious scrolling back and forth and use only a slight difference in color to tell you what button you’re about to hit. Every section tells you how long it is, so you can plan your watching accordingly. The Hobbit extras are the gold standard of how to do bonus features and I wish that more studios and franchises would take as much care both in what they offer for extra material and the functionality of their products.

The Hobbit trilogy is not great cinema. The whole does not measure up to the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are in themselves fascinating and beautiful. They make it worth going there and back again.

Image: Promotional still from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 7

We’re back at it, rewatching and rating season 7 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on this season’s episodes:

  1. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” – 1.5
  2. “Asylum of the Daleks” – 6
  3. “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” – 5
  4. “A Town Called Mercy” – 5
  5. “The Power of Three” – 2
  6. “The Angels Take Manhattan” – 3
  7. “The Snowmen” – 6.5
  8. “The Bells of Saint John” – 6.5
  9. “The Rings of Akhaten” – 3
  10. “Cold War” – 5
  11. “Hide” – 6.5
  12. “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” – 2
  13. “The Crimson Horror” – 4
  14. “Nightmare in Silver” – 4
  15. “The Name of the Doctor” – 3

The average rating for this season is an unimpressive 4.2, a slight comedown from season 6’s 4.4, though better than season 5’s 3.7. On the whole, this season just feels half-baked. There are some great ideas here that are just wasted on meandering, unfocused, episodes. An evil living sun! A Martian warrior on a Soviet submarine at the height of the cold war! Dinosaurs on a freakin’ spaceship! All of these ideas must have sounded great when first pitched, but the episodes developed from them just feel like underdeveloped first drafts. There are also some episodes that start out with great potential and then just flop. Mysterious black cubes appear all over the world and no one knows what they do! A pulp crime novel predicts the future! Despite their promising starts, these episodes just fizzle out in the end. Many of these episodes feel like they could have been standouts if more attention had been paid to developing the script.

At the bottom of the heap this time around is the Christmas episode “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” at 1.5, about the Doctor trying to inject some delight into the lives of a grieving family by giving the children a magical trip to a winter wonderplanet. This episode’s problems are many, including misplaced comedy, uninteresting characters, and mediocre child acting. The biggest problems, though, run deeper. The whimsy is forced, and the story never quite decides how close it wants to hew to the C. S. Lewis original. Unlike some of this season’s other disappointing episodes, it’s hard to see this one’s problems being solved with another draft or two.

For best episodes of the season, it’s a three-way tie among “The Snowmen,” “The Bells of Saint John,” and “Hide,” all at a decent-if-not-outstanding 6.5. “The Snowmen” finds the Doctor grieving the loss of his companions Amy and Rory by hiding out in Victorian London, while sentient snow threatens a family whose governess is one version of Clara Oswald. “The Bells of Saint John” brings the Doctor and Clara together properly with a story of a nefarious company stealing people’s minds through wi-fi. “Hide” is a ghost-hunting story with a time-travel twist.

All of these episodes have their strengths. “The Snowmen” does a better job playing with it’s Mary Poppins inspiration than “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” does with Narnia. It also allows Clara’s character plenty of room to breathe and brings back the ever-delightful Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. “The Bells of Saint John” is a tightly-paced paranoia thriller with lots of good action (even though the wi-fi mind-stealing plot never makes the least bit of sense). “Hide” begins as an atmospheric haunted house story that slowly unfolds to reveal surprising layers of complexity. While they all could have done with a bit more development, there are satisfying moments in each.

There are also some good long-term developments this season. Curious, resourceful Clara is a much more enjoyable companion to watch than Amy the bully. There is also much less hero-worshiping of the Doctor than in previous seasons.

That’s our take on Doctor Who‘s seventh season. What’s yours? Do you have favorites (or unfavorites) this season? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who Season 7 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.